Making Today’s Cities Carfree

It is urgently necessary nowadays to build and to promote new models of urbanism less car-dependant that can allow one to choose freely his mode of transportation. Therefore there is a need to think about new systems of urban planning, but also to think about possibilities to convert existing places into carfree areas. Over the last few decades, models of car-based urbanism have spread around the world and now the challenge is to draw a way out of this evolution. This is the path that Joel Crawford will follow in this new column about carfree conversions.

The Lyon Protocol Revisited

One of the many fruits of the first Towards Carfree Cities conference held in Lyon, France in 1997 was the drafting of a document known as ‘The Design and Implementation of Large Car-Free Districts in Existing Cities’. I was one of the authors of this document and later gave it the descriptor ‘The Lyon Protocol’. It was a rather hasty piece of work, and so far as I am aware, it has never been revised. I reviewed it before starting work on this article, and I am pleased to see that it holds up quite well after a dozen years. Some of the principles it established have since been expanded upon, most recently in ‘Carfree Design Manual’, which takes as a fundamental belief that future residents of a carfree district should be the ones to do much of its panning and most of its design.

Let us begin with a quick look at the Lyon Protocol. First of all, it recognised the effects of scale. Implementation of small projects would be quite different from larger projects. It was recognised that any large conversion project would require the early involvement of all organisations and individuals who would be affected, including people outside the immediate area of the conversion. Conflicts must be identified early, before they become problems, and broad support for the project must be developed. A data-gathering process, including mapping, demographics, and transport, is an early step. All available information on the site is needed. This is an immense amount of data, but most of it is routinely gathered for large-scope urban planning efforts.

A working group would then develop a preliminary concept. This includes the boundaries of the carfree area, proposed changes in traffic circulation, traffic-reduction measures, and the ultimate carfree plan. In particular, freight delivery and through traffic require careful attention, as these concerns can sink a carfree project at an early stage. Phasing was also mentioned as an early concern, because in most cases a sudden conversion to the desired end result is politically impossible. A ‘carrot-and-stick approach’ would encourage good practices and discourage bad ones. Public transport, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure would be improved. Measures would be adopted to slow traffic, reduce the space devoted to cars, and restrict parking.

Street parking near the centre would be the first to go. Cars would be required to park steadily farther away from the centre, encouraging people to use public transport or bike. Parking fees would be greatly increased over a period of a few years. Car use would be reduced gradually. The first to go would be private cars of non-residents, followed later by private cars of residents. Traffic cells would discourage cross-city travel. Parking permits would be sold only with a transport pass. One final change is the conversion of freight delivery from conventional trucks to the chosen system. (The retention of truck delivers during limited hours is an option.) Ultimately, only emergency-service vehicles should be permitted.

The news media are essential to a good outcome, but specific plans should not be presented too hastily. The ground must be prepared by a long discussion of the problems caused by cars and the alternatives that solve these problems. The benefits are large and should be stressed from the start. If this is badly handled, resistance might harden at an early stage. The process is inherently political, and the support of local politicians is essential. To secure broad support, the concept plan is presented to each of the affected groups for discussion. As unmet needs are revealed, they will affect the plan. The process of contacting groups and responding to their concerns would continue until all serious obstacles have been overcome.

Near the end of the process, a week-long intensive community design workshop could be held to manage the more stubborn problems and to secure broad agreement by all stakeholders. This workshop could be sponsored by the city government, which by this time should be strongly in support of the plan. Interested parties would join in this brain-storming process, with the objective of reaching consensus on a plan. City planning officials would then develop final plans and phasing. Do make certain that the city’s final plan respects this consensus. Major deviations should not be adopted without broad discussion.

The Long-Term Master Plan

The Lyon Protocol did not directly address the question of removing cars from an entire city. This leads to a risk that the implementation of plans in one area might interfere with later expansions of the carfree areas. There are a number of points where this might occur, but parking, public transport, and freight delivery are likely.

I do not foresee that cars will completely disappear. Eventually, their use in cities will be largely or entirely prohibited, but a transport mode that reaches rural areas is required, probably involving some continued use of private cars. The interface between rural cars and the city thus requires careful planning. I propose simply to build multi-story parking garages (preferably underground) at the city’s edge for visitors’ cars and car-sharing vehicles. City residents who regularly need a car to travel outside the city could rent a space. These garages must be linked to the city by good public transport. This is, of course, less convenient that driving directly to a destination within the city and will discourage people from using cars unnecessarily.

In Carfree Cities, I proposed the development of ‘utility areas’ at the edges of carfree cities. Utilitarian functions would be located here, including parking, staging areas for freight delivery, warehousing, heavy manufacturing, and other noxious uses. Utility areas require connection to the rest of the city by public transport. For freight delivery I have proposed ‘metro-freight’, an adaptation of passenger metro technology. This system uses standard shipping containers to deliver freight to locations alongside a dedicated freight-only route that runs through the city. Smaller and lighter freight can be delivered short distances by bike or special modes as required. I want to eliminate routine truck traffic in carfree cities.

I believe that the carfree city, if it is to exceed a population of, say, 20,000, will depend upon a high-quality public transport system to connect the various city districts. I believe that this should be a rail-based system, such as a tram or underground metro. I am opposed to the construction of any above-ground transport facility. It is simply too ugly, intrusive, and noisy. Buses could be used instead of rail systems, but the quality of service is lower, and operating costs are higher. Finally, buses are noisy and polluting. Even with the advances made by ‘bus rapid-transit’ systems, I hold that they are inferior to rail.

The master plan for a city that is contemplating a widespread conversion to the carfree model must establish the routes for these systems and the locations for the parking garages and other utility functions. These are not decisions that can be taken on the fly. Rail systems do have one serious limitation: they do not accommodate sharp curves. It is true that narrow-gauge trams can turn remarkably sharp corners (often with an ear-splitting screech), but this is a bad design condition that slows service and increases maintenance costs.

About 50 years ago, Amsterdam looked at its need for metros and adopted a metro network plan. Some parts of that plan will probably never be realised, but once the troublesome North-South line is finally completed, the city will have a coherent metro network that largely follows the originally-identified routes. This sort of large-scale planning should be commenced at an early date in most cities. It is otherwise likely that awkward conditions will arise that have no good long-term solution. Either the work will have to be done again, at huge expense, or the limitations will have to be accepted as permanent.

Keeping to Consensus

This leaves us with the conclusion that while small-scale, local projects can proceed largely without consideration of the city as a whole, large-scale conversions must anticipate long-term changes. One point that is likely to be overlooked is the provision of adequate green space. Many existing cities are seriously deficient in parks near the centre. Plans for carfree conversions should include the ultimate reversion of some of the more sparsely-settled areas to green space, at the same time that areas near transport halts are made more compact.

The need for centralised planning in no way implies that citizens should be excluded from the process. Typically, public input is limited to the conclusion of planning. The planners have already decided what they want to do, in great detail. Changes are difficult to make at that point. A better process involves citizens and their visions at an early stage, with renewed consultation as the plans emerge and are refined. As a matter of practical democracy, this is a better way to proceed.

Finally, we must guard against the influences of special interests. Nowhere more than in urban planning are the interests of rich individuals and corporations at stake than in the adoption of a city’s master plan. It is probably impossible to eliminate this influence, but a transparent process in which all stakeholders and their concerns are clearly identified will go a long ways towards reducing the corrupting influence of private interests on public planning.

In the next article, we will take up the matter of gradual implementation in more detail.

By Joel Crawford

For more information on the Lyon Protocol, please visit:


“This leaves us with the conclusion that while small-scale, local projects can proceed largely without consideration of the city as a whole, large-scale conversions must anticipate long-term changes”

“Nowhere more than in urban planning are the interests of rich individuals and corporations at stake than in the adoption of a city’s master plan”

One Comment

  1. Ted Brown
    Posted 6 March, 2012 at 04:25 | Permalink

    How about CARFREE CITIES? Check out BICYCLE CITY, South Carolina, here and ?

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] In the first article (Carbusters #38), we considered the basic principles of carfree conversion as they were established in the Lyon Protocol. We also reviewed the need for a long-term master plan to guide the conversion over a span of decades. This must include an expanded route system for public transport. In this issue we consider why implementation of carfree areas in existing cities must be phased and should proceed at a moderate pace. We also consider measures to reduce car traffic early in the conversion process. […]

  2. By Better Public Transport - Carbusters on 27 July, 2010 at 12:35

    […] In the first article (Carbusters #38), we considered the basic principles of carfree conversion that were established in the Lyon Protocol. In Carbusters #39 we looked at the need for a phased conversion in existing cities. We also considered measures to reduce car traffic almost immediately. […]

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